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Jean-Paul Scarpitta [Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier]
13 Mar 2014

Jean-Paul Scarpitta in Montpellier

I met with the embattled artistic director of the Opéra et Orchestre National de Montepellier not to talk about his battles. I simply wanted to know the man who had cast and staged a truly extraordinary Mozart/DaPonte trilogy.

Jean-Paul Scarpitta in Montpellier

An interview by Michael Milenski

Above: Jean-Paul Scarpitta [Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier]


Jean-Paul Scarpitta however wanted to talk about his battles, a situation he has not yet spoken about publicly. As the luncheon meeting progressed the battles, the man and his Mozart trilogy merged into a single philosophy created of quite complex components.

It all starts with composer René Koering who brought Jean-Paul Scarpitta to Montpellier in 2001 for a small mise en scène of Saint-Saêns’ Carnival of the Animals. Koering who had a long standing programming connection with Radio France founded the Festival de Radio France et de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon in 1985. Always a forum for rare music and performances, in the first decade of the next century this superb summer festival was especially noted for reviving forgotten operas from the early twentieth century.

In 1990 Koering became the director of the Opéra Orchestre National de Montpellier (OONM), bringing the ideals of the festival into the daily musical life of Montpellier — a broad program of symphonic and chamber music, original productions of rare and standard opera at ticket prices that encourage filled halls (top prices even in 2014 are but 32 euros for concerts and 65 euros for operas plus there are substantial discounts for subscribers and those under 27 years of age).

Montpellier’s 250,000 residents are part of an urban area that counts 550,000 inhabitants, making it the fourteenth largest metropolitan area in France. Its Opéra however is one of only five regional companies (with Bordeaux, Nancy, Lyon, and Strasbourg) that are designated as national, denoting a stature more or less akin to the Opéra National de Paris.

Jean-Paul Scarpitta returned to the festival in 2004 to stage Kodály’s singspiel Háry Jànos. But with a twist. Scarpitta brought his friend Gérard Depardieu with him to narrate Kodaly’s tale about a country bumpkin who arrives in Vienna. Scarpitta’s first steps as a metteur en scène had been back in 1997 for Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with Depardieu as the soldier. I asked how he knew Depardieu. Scarpitta said that he had gone backstage after a performance to introduce himself. Responding to my un-asked question Scarpitta said that you accept your friends as they are.

Conductor Ricardo Muti has been an important force in Scarpitta’s artistic life for the past 20 years. I asked how he came to know the famous maestro. Scarpitta said he introduced himself going backstage after a performance, greatly moved by the music.

Scarpitta_BW.pngJean-Paul Scarpitta [Source: Wikipedia]

Scarpitta confessed that he needs to admire. An adolescent, his greatest admiration was of ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar who later became a star at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1970‘s, and a frequent guest star at the New York City Ballet as well. Scarpitta told me how he, a student of art history, followed her to New York with his camera, documenting her work with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Another photographic adventure as well helped propel the young Scarpitta to recognition in Parisian artistic circles — he compiled an exhibition of 50 years of fashion photography in Vogue magazine, an exhibition that toured the world.

I neglected to ask what repertoire Muti conducted the night Scarpitta met the maestro. Maybe it was Mozart, a composer Muti became close to in his forty year association with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Italian conductor is famous for his strongly personal Mozart, fusing intelligence, elegance and wit, attributes that as well extend to the stagings of the Mozart/DaPonte trilogy by Jean-Paul Scarpitta.

For Scarpitta art is line and form and tone, in music, dance and photography. But above all else Scarpitta insists that it is heart. Scarpitta announced to me that we are all Don Giovanni.

Those many years ago Muti told Scarpitta that he needed a theater where he would make his own art. Scarpitta’s was appointed general director of the OONM in 2011, fulfilling finally Muti’s assertion. That same year Muti invited Scarpitta to stage Nabucco in Rome. The production became famous not because of Scarpitta’s staging but because at the premiere Muti laid down his baton after the "Va pensiero" chorus to speak to the audience about the Berlusconi budget cuts to the arts, quoting a line from the chorus, “Oh mia patria, sì bella e perduta (lost).”

Muti then invited the public to sing along in a repeat of the famous chorus. Learn the words before you attend Nabucco at the Chorégies d’Orange this summer where "Va pensiero" has always been a singalong. It will again be staged by Scarpitta.

And, quid pro quo, Scarpitta invited Muti’s daughter Chiara to Montpellier to stage Orfeo ed Euridice this past fall (yes, the Italian, not the French version), her debut as an opera director.

Enter another of the forces in Scarpitta’s artistic life: Georges Frêche, mayor of Montpellier from 1977 until 2004 when he became president of the Montpellier agglomeration and then president of the conseil régional de Languedoc-Rossillon until his death in October 2010. This remarkable man, prominent in the Socialist Party his entire life, gave Montpellier its current look, initiating major urbanization projects that have made Montpellier a model for the world. Among the most significant is a huge central plaza, the Place Comédie and Esplanade, with the fine old (1888) 1200 seat Opéra Comédie at one extreme and the ultra-modern, 2000 seat Théâtre Berlioz at the other. Scarpitta deems this expanse of enlightened urbanization a sleeping beauty, begging to be artistically fulfilled.

Evidently a passionate proponent of the arts Georges Frêche was also an advocate of making the arts accessible to a large public. He had his disciple in René Koering whom he advanced to Superintendent of Music for Montpellier in 2000. A golden era ensued that ultimately gave Jean Paul Scarpitta his theater, among many other accomplishments. Scarpitta staged the world premiere of Pergolesi’s never before performed Salustia, Hindemith’s lurid Sancta Susanna, Honneger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, plus Offenbach’s never finished La Haine (here completed by composer Koering) with Depardieu and another of Scapitta’s fascinations, actress Fanny Ardant.

Koering named Scarpitta to “artist-in-residence” at OONM for 2006/07 thus signaling to the honorable Frêche that Scarpitta was artistically and politically his obvious successor. Scarpitta had moved in the François Mitterrand circles in Paris in the 1980’s (as did Françoise Sagan who became, by the way, an intimate friend of Scarpitta). Interestingly Mitterrand, France’s first socialist president, always kept his distance from Frêche who had been a fervent Maoist in the 1960’s and remained ever since a firebrand politician.

The death of Frêche in 2010 upended and ended the office of Superintendent of Music, its finances were made public (Montpellier’s daily newspaper Midi Libre reported that Koering had awarded himself an annual salary of 294,000 euros), its considerable deficits were questioned, and furthermore France’s Ministry of Culture had descended from Paris to insist that something be done about the quality of the chorus — not up to the standard of an opéra national!

Koering, then 70 years old, his artistic and political accomplishment enormous, stepped aside a year before his contract expired to make way for new energy — a team headed by Jean-Paul Scarpitta.

Rare and forgotten repertory has all but disappeared from Scarpitta’s personal theater, replaced by the grand repertory of heroines who are victims — Carmen, Manon, Violetta and particularly Mimi whom Scarpitta deems a saint who gains the veneration of all those who surround her. As a stage director Scarpitta describes his approach as instinctual rather than conceptual, allowing him to juxtapose the redemptive process effected by the sacrifices of these operatic heroines with his fascination for Baudelaire, a poet whose name he often mentioned during our lunch. In fact Baudelaire’s search in Les Fleurs du Mal for sublime beauty in crude reality is exactly matched in these four operas.

Scarpitta originally staged Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 2007 with France’s famed Le Concert Spiritual in the pit, this esteemed Baroque ensemble then in residence in Koering’s Montpellier. Most striking was the youth of the cast, and beyond that the perfection of the casting, each character beautifully defined physically, well endowed vocally and musically finished. The key to the staging was the hysterical laughter of Don Giovanni that ended the first act — a young man very unsure of himself, Scarpitta explained when I asked about the laughter. The uncertainties of youth were very present and made potent by fine singing. The death of the Don was but the catalyst of the consequent tragedies felt in all these young lives.

Les Noces de Figaro took us to another plain, that of luxury and elegance. Scarpitta’s friend, famous couturier Jean Paul Gaultier created the costumes that clothed the perfect cast. Again the crème de la crème of young singers who could have been cast because their bodies made high fashion design look like such, or these singers could have been cast because they were capable of highly refined lyricism. Scarpitta’s staging too was all about elegance, that restrained beauty inherent in minimal movement (this included several quite graceful full body falls). In spite of Figaro assuming the fetal position during Marcellina’s aria Mozart’s humanity was the casualty of the production.

Jean Paul Gaultier and Jean-Paul Scarpitta are both directors of the Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation, an activity very much on Scarpitta’s mind. The foundation offers educational opportunities to academically talented, under-privileged youth, and stresses that the grants are made to youth both on the political right and left. In 2007 Scarpitta was one of 150 French intellectuals who signed a letter supporting Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal in her bid for the presidency of France won by Nicolas Sarkozy. On the other hand Scarpitta was one of 20 prominent French artists who signed a letter supporting Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election.

As for nearly all the operas he has staged for Montpellier Scarpitta designed the set for Cosi fan tutte — a green floor and a blue wall. That is all. There is however no minimalism whatsoever in the pit. Conductors for the trilogy have been as young and talented as the cast. For Cosi it was English conductor Alexander Shelley who brought remarkable musical depth to this problematic Mozart opera. In fact this conductor made time stand still — the opera was not about its silly story, it was about the voices of youth, and Scarpitta’s staging left no emotive pulse of the music without an empathetic position. The splendid young cast abstractly danced to the music of this conductor.

Le Figaro rightly discerned that there was no humor in this Cosi, and went on to find a complete absence of stage direction in Scarpitta’s stripped down production, adding that the voices of the Fiordiligi and Dorabella were splendid if you did not have to look at the stage, and that the Despina was the only dramatically alive character on the stage. Le Monde rightly discerned that this was a staging of a légèreté galante (galant lightness), but meant that such an approach is hardly the current and appropriate politic for Cosi. And furthermore that the cast was uniformly mediocre, especially the Despina. Well, except the Dorabella who was magnificent, not to mention the equally wonderful violas of the orchestra, alto voices evidently on this critic’s mind.

An internet blogger correctly attributed Scarpitta’s dramaturgy to Robert Wilson (or “Bob” as he is known in France) and to Giorgio Strehler, suggesting that it is mere imitation. The venerated Italian metteur en scène Strehler was the first of Scarpitta’s theatrical fascinations, and through ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar he wangled an introduction. He then became part of Strehler’s Parisian cadre, observing this great director at work.

The European operatic avant garde has long been smitten with Texan Robert Wilson (Scarpitta now has Wilson’s, that is Bob’s gifted lighting designer Urs Schönebaum as part of his creative team). If Scarpitta’s stagings are homages to these two theatrical geniuses they are as well his homages to opera’s grand repertoire. This is Scarpitta’s style, based on his greatest need — to admire. This operatic minimalism, seen through Baudelaire’s filter of evil flowers gives Scarpitta his unique, and original directorial voice.

Scarpitta has not had good press, for example the Montpellier daily Midi Libre blindly repeated assertions by the chorus that he does not read music. I asked if he in fact does not read music. Of course he does, and plays the piano, one of the passions of his early youth. He does not read orchestral score, nor do I, nor I imagine do most of the choristers.

The Scarpitta artistic vision for Montpellier, and some of the guest conductors, like Riccardo Muti, and designers like Schönebaum have placed great pressures on the OONM salaires — the chorus, orchestra and the stagehands, the workers in the artistic trenches of the opera company. After the comfortable satisfactions of the Koering years they have not liked the Scarpitta challenges and have effected his removal from the direction of OONM.

Scarpitta has one final staging in his contract, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle that will occur in fall 2014. Don Giovanni and Barbe-bleue are two masculine operatic signposts that hold great interest for Scarpitta. Like Giovanni, Barbe-bleue dares to show his inner self, his solitude, his sorrows, his difficulties with relationships. Scarpitta believes that the blood on Bartok’s stage is actually that of Bluebeard, oozing more each and every day. There is no doubt that it is Scarpitta’s blood to be spilled all over the stage this fall. And I believe he will have enjoyed every minute of his combats montpelliérains.

Scarpitta wishes his successor, Valérie Chevalier, success. He recognizes her very great experience will be quite useful as she confronts the enormous financial, artistic and political challenges facing OONM. In the wake of the Scarpitta difficulties for this current season the Regional Council, a supporter of Scarpitta, had diminished its contribution by 5 million euros (Georges Frêche had taken it to 9,5 million so it became 4 million). The president of the Montpellier agglomeration, Jean Pierre Moure, who removed Scarpitta from the OONM direction, stepped in with an additional 5 million to restore the budget to 24,000,000 euros. President Moure has made himself a very important patron of and participant in the affairs of the OONM.

It was a tense lunch at the Jardin des Cinq Sens, a Relais et Chateaux with its Michelin starred restaurant, Scarpitta’s residence when in Montpellier. He was on edge knowing that he is raw meat for journalists. I could not find a way to put him at ease and we never really connected during those two and one half hours. Well, maybe at the end we did — when we stood up he used his napkin to brush off the breadcrumbs that had fallen onto my shirtfront.

We met again after the late afternoon symphony concert at the Théâtre Berlioz. Young Alexander Shelley of the Scarpitta Cosi had conducted, slowly, very slowly Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and the principal cellist of the Orchestre National de Montpellier, Alexandre Dmitriev had performed Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, the title a verse from Baudelaire’s La Chevelure, and each of its five movements prescribed with verses pulled from Les Fleurs du Mal. Seated within sight of Scarpitta we could see he was transfixed (the man sitting next to me went to sleep). It was also quite apparent that some sections of the orchestra are in need of modernization.

No longer on edge, and walking on air after the Dutilleux, Scarpitta kissed the hand of my wife and recalled his trip through San Francisco, how he had admired the city on his way to Napa to visit his friend — yes, you guessed it — Francis Ford Coppola.

Michael Milenski

Michael Milenski resides in San Francisco in spring and fall, and in the south of France in winter and summer. His reviews of the Scarpitta Mozart/DaPonte operas are on Opera Today. This essay was compiled from articles in the French press, a lengthy statement by Jean-Paul Scarpitta on the website of the Carlo Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation, general information found on the web, and of course from his conversations with Mr. Scarpitta.

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